Sermon Erev Rosh Hashanah September 16, 2012
מעריב רשה השנה
יהיו לרצון אמרי פי
May the Words of My Mouth
Delivered at Rollins Chapel
Many years ago, I took my voice teacher Ruth Morton, עליה השלום, to this very Chapel. I had worked with others to design a Rosh Hashanah service based on the extraordinary diversity of the Jewish people. The broad range of Jewish expression unto God could be found from the traditional hazzanut of Eastern Europe to the beautiful melodies and creativity of the Reform Movement, which included the use of musical instruments.
כלל ישראל embraces the principle found in that beautiful Midrash that everyone who stands at Mt. Sinai heard the identical sound of God, but each heard a different message. Could there be such a response to God that reflected the unique understandings of each of us as we stood at Sinai so long ago. This remains the great challenge of not only this service, but of the Jewish people and the world.
I called on Ruth Morton, for she was Jewish, her father was a Cantor, and she was a graduate of Juilliard and had sung leading roles in many of the great operas. Most important, she would be unrelenting in her criticism and would tell me straight if the music was too broad to hold everything together. How could Reform liturgy and beautiful camp-inspired songs that many grew up singing exist side-by-side with some of the greatest cantorial music ever to have been composed; from Lewandowski to the organic hazzanut that would grow out of the Jewish experiences of the old country?
I also feared that that this service would cross the line between kavanah – intentionality and the tachanun –prayer as supplication – each aspect coming from the deepest part of our soul on the one hand – and aesthetics on the other. People might not pray. Instead, they would listen tothe beautiful harmonies that Bonnie Kimmelman, Patricia Fisher, Kathy Parsonnet, and Karen Harris create, alongside the extraordinary musicianship of composer and Professor Larry Polansky. It would lead to an appreciation for the aesthetic, but it would not be prayer.
Thus, in my worry, I brought Ruth Morton to this Chapel and it was an effort for her to get her, as she was elderly by this time. It was quite warm inside that August afternoon; not cool like this evening. I had my guitar and did the entire service. Ruth Morton would always be honest. She listened and assured me that there was a beautiful flow. As to whether people would pray or listen, she said she had no control over this, but that I should not worry too much about it. This service was born a vision that to this day remains burdened with doubt and worry.
The Symbolic Nature of This Service
The purpose of these Yamim Hanoraim – the High Holy Days – is תשובה – repentance. It is a time to turn inward and outward towards that place in the heart where G-d can be found and where G-d may be found between the spaces that separate us from one another.
Praying together fills the space within and without. This service places a heavy emphasis on community; who we are in the here and in the now. Most of us did not grow up here. Like most modern communities, we are comprised of Reform, Secular, Conservative, and Traditional. This service requires the individual to appreciate and to elevate the difference of our backgrounds, our traditions, and to see them as an expression of our love for one another.
I never went to summer camp as my allergies and asthma were too severe and my pediatrician forbade my parents to send me. Moreover, I grew up in a traditional/conservative synagogue. Guitar, musical instruments, vocal harmonies were not permitted and if they had been, it would have been far too weird. Even at HUC, I rarely used musical instruments because I was a student rabbi at a local conservative synagogue where simply becoming egalitarian was a major accomplishment.
It was only when I came here that I began to experience the great diversity of traditions that all of you here this evening represent.
What do I Pray for This Evening?
I pray that this service will reach and touch your heart. I speak for everyone here on the Bimah that our deepest hope is for you to participate, to pray as an expression of your love for all aspects of being Jewish. For some of you, this may simply be to remain quiet and to use the prayers of tonight as an opportunity for deep spiritual reflection. For others, it may be to sing from the depths of the heart so as to liberate from the ordinary and to feel the embrace of these Days of Awe – these ימים הנוראים.
Psalm 19 captures the existential difficulty and joys of life’s journey. It calls us to enter the path towards God and one another. It acknowledges the beauty of the universe that is here, in its totality. The author so eloquently acknowledges the importance place that we occupy in creation. What we do here matters to God, for it is the ultimate response to appreciate the likeness and image in which we were originally created so long ago.
We realize the truth that there is uncertainty in our heart whether or not God will find our prayers and yearnings acceptable. Teshuvah – heart-felt prayer -is the deepest of these, for it seeks to extend only to fill the space that separates us from one another.